In this episode, Suchitra Vijayan is in conversation with Dr. Deana Heath about her book Colonial Terror.
Focusing on India between the early nineteenth century and the First World War, Colonial Terror: Torture and Violence in Colonial India explores the centrality of the torture of Indian bodies to the law-preserving violence of colonial rule and some of the ways in which extraordinary violence was embedded in the ordinary operation of colonial states. Although enacted largely by Indians on Indian bodies, particularly by subaltern members of the Police, the book argues that torture was facilitated, systematized, and ultimately sanctioned by first the East India Company and then the Raj because it benefitted the colonial regime, since rendering the Police a source of terror played a key role in the construction and maintenance of state sovereignty.
Deana Heath is a Reader in Indian and Colonial History at the University of Liverpool. She writes and teaches about South Asian, imperial and colonial, and global histories as well as their post-colonial legacies.
(This transcript has been edited for length and clarity)
Suchitra Vijayan (SV): Before I start, I would like to acknowledge that India today HAS become the second country in the world after the United States to pass the 20 million coronavirus mark as the government announced over 300,000 new infections and 3,449 deaths in the past 24 hours. The pandemic in India has also shown truth: the immense violence embedded in the Indian State. Sometimes, to understand the present, we need to go back to the past. Today, we discuss an excellent book, Colonial Terror: Torture and State Violence in Colonial India, by Professor Deana Heath. Focusing on India between the early 19th Century and the First World War, Colonial Terror explores the centrality of torture of the Indian bodies to the law-preserving violence of colonial rule and how extraordinary violence was embedded in ordinary operations of the colonial State. Joining us today is Deana Heath, who is a Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Liverpool. She teaches South Asian, imperial and colonial, and global histories and post-colonial legacies. Professor Heath, thank you so much for joining us today.
Deana Heath (DH): Thank you for having me.
SV: I want to start from the beginning. Your book begins by quoting Fanon’s Concerning Violence where he says that a colonial regime owes its legitimacy to force and at no time tries to hide this aspect of things. Could you talk about why you chose to start with this quote and the relevance of Fanon’s theoretical insights for your research in the forms of violence and terror in colonial India?
DH: I start with that just to hit home that Empire is first and foremost about exploitation and it is astonishing how this truth has been denied and displaced. I’m alluding to public history and memory in relation to Empire, which certainly in Britain has largely erased violence from it. While academic history does deal with some aspects of the violence of the Empire, it tends to focus on big events.
If you look at India, we focus on the Amritsar Massacre, for example. However, the history of settler colonies, I think, does a better job in exploring the brutal nature of the Empire particularly in relation to its genocidal side. For me, what Fanon does well is show the connections between visible forms of violence and what Slavoj Zizek has termed “subjective forms of violence,” that is the things that we automatically identify as violence and objective forms of violence. These are all the hidden forms of violence that produce subjective forms of violence like massacres. We can’t understand violence and the history of the Empire without understanding the connections between these two and nobody does this better than Fanon in terms of hitting home the truth about colonialism. Fiction writers have done a better job [at expressing] how the violence of the Empire is internalized by both the colonizers and the colonized and how the impact on both is destructive. These forms of colonial violence get internalized and then spread through the respective communities of the colonizers and colonized.
SV: Thank you so much for being so precise about what colonial violence and Empire means as we are now again litigating whether the colony was itself good or bad.
Your research shows how and why the blame of colonial terror itself shifted onto the sections of the colonized. You term this the “displacement of colonial blame thesis.” With case studies, you observe that Britain, according to such logic, was not responsible for torture. Could you share how colonial blame was displaced and what this does not only at the level of the legal burden of proof but also in terms of the burden of historical memory?
DH: One of the most brutal and horrific legacies of Empire is how both the history and collective memory of colonialism — at least in the Global North — has served to displace the blame for the brutality of Empire onto the victims of Empire. This is something that was constitutive of Empire. According to the justificatory logic of the Empire, Black and Brown people were supposedly inherently violent, and the colonizers were simply there to “civilize” them. Forms of violence like torture were then merely an inherent attribute of supposedly barbaric peoples, not of colonial systems of rule. This conveniently allowed the colonizers to continue to perpetuate such forms of violence in a context like India, which, as I demonstrate, they did through their policing and criminal justice systems.
This is one of the greatest tragedies of the Empire because that rhetoric that the British were doing a good deed hasn’t gone away. They were there to bring their lore, civilization, languages and cultures to transform colonized peoples. This was a way of displacing blame for the constitutive violence of the Empire because you could say that torture had nothing to do with the British, but the Indians were inherently barbaric and had a penchant for torture and brutalizing each other. It was a way of getting colonial regimes not just off the hook but to legitimize their rule both in the imperial metropole and among colonized peoples because they could say: “We are here to protect you from your people.”
There were times they acknowledged they were violent — the Amritsar Massacre is a notable example, but these were distinguished between other forms of violence that were deemed acceptable. Any kind of violence that was perpetrated with the aim of “civilizing” the colonized was legitimated even if it produced widespread famines in which millions died as a result of things like transformations in land-owning practices or high taxes or laissez-faire economics – that was fine as long as the end goal was that of civilizing peoples and then transforming them, their cultures, their histories in the image of the colonizers. That’s what I mean by displacement of colonial blame.
SV: That brings us to the opinion in Britain today. According to a poll by YouGov, about a third of Britons believe that Britain’s colonies were better off under the Empire. 80 years after the British colonial rule in India ended, we observe a growing nostalgia for the colonial legacy and even a defense of the Empire. What does it mean to publish a research that teases out the extent of colonial violence and cruelty in great detail and nuance against this backdrop where fundamental facts continue to be denied?
DH: I have had the privilege of holding academic posts in four countries. Three of those were former colonies and when I was working in the Republic of Ireland, the US and Canada, I certainly felt that I didn’t have to explain or justify what I was doing. There seems to be an inherent understanding that Empire is evil. Certainly in Ireland that was the case. Although there is an amnesia of a different sort there because, in former settler colonies, there is a disjuncture between the histories of so-called exploitation colonies and settler colonies – that the two were quite different, governed differently, had different histories is problematic.
I moved to the UK almost eight years ago to take up my current post at the University of Liverpool and the difference was stark from what I was used to. It is just a continuing culture of impunity and denial because there has just been no reckoning with the history of the Empire in Britain. In the past decade, the situation has only grown worse because of the rise of right-wing populist movements.
We have a government that is dominated by white, public school-educated men and for them history is simply a series of facts that children should be taught in order to make them patriotic. Questioning dominant white perceptions of the history of Empire becomes an undoing of all that. To question the past then is to be unpatriotic. All of that is dispiriting and troubling. Young people do give me hope because everywhere I have taught, they are not interested in the histories that they are being taught to swallow and want to know about the Empire.
I developed a course here at the University of Liverpool called “Global history of the present” where we look at how Empire and race continue to shape so many global events today: we look at the legacies of Empire, at Black Lives Matter and trace them back to the past. Students find this exhilarating, exciting, freeing.
My students are diverse. They come from so many different backgrounds and they want to see their backgrounds represented. I’m publishing my work against a backdrop of repression that seeks to shut down all debate, but I think there’s a lot of pushback among the young, which gives me hope.
SV: Deana, I stayed in England and you telling me that you are teaching Black Lives Matter means the world to me because when I studied in the early 2000s, there was no engagement with any of these issues. So again, thank you so much.
You are looking at Indians between the early 19th Century and the First World War to show that torture was not simply an act of aberration or an occasional crossing of limits by the Police or the Police were not a few bad apples. Instead, you very specifically argue that torture was facilitated, systematized and ultimately sanctioned by the East India Company and the Raj. Could you tell us why torture, which you note should be seen as a terrorizing tactic of colonial policing, was so essential and central to the working of the colonial State? Why was violence so central to the working of the State?
DH: There is not a lot of scholarship on torture and most of its focus is on one commission in the mid-19th Century, which is incredibly important but doesn’t capture the scope and scale of what I think was a regime of torture. Certain forms of violence like torture were convenient for the British colonial regime in India. It is not that the British invented torture as a tactic of policing. In the book, I talk specifically about torture in relation to policing, but the policies and practices of the colonial regime enabled torture to multiply. There were relatively few laws in Mughal India in comparison to the vast panoply that the British introduced. Suddenly, all sorts of behaviors were criminalized. There were very few offenses in Mughal India, for example, that would lead to the death penalty. Under the British, the death penalty multiplied exponentially. This led to the tremendous powers given to even the lowest ranks of what was a largely uneducated, illiterate and untrained Police force until the beginning of the twentieth Century. It was through these means, the legal system and the system of policing that torture became systematized under the British – not that it hadn’t previously existed, but became integral to this system of policing.
But for the British, this posed a problem because torture was seen as un-British and uncivilized. It is not something that the British could remotely claim to endorse. They had to do everything possible to appear to stamp it out. From about the beginning of the 19th Century and for the rest of the colonial rule, there were endless attempts to do this: commissions of inquiry, Police reforms, legal reforms to stamp out torture. On the surface, it looks like the British really wanted to stamp it out, but these were not effective attempts because the policing and criminal justice systems ultimately enabled and even rewarded Police who tortured. It proved really advantageous for them because it made the Police, as a source of terror, important in quelling a restive colonized population. It also enabled them to displace violence on Indians. The British could then repeatedly say that we are here to protect you from these brutal members of your population — they are the ones carrying out the violence, not us.
This terrorizing aspect of the Police benefitted the British. They had to be careful to control it because, of course, it could get out of hand, but many reports refer to the Police as a source of terror, and there is never an effort to change that.
SV: And that brings us to the rule of law. In your book, you discuss how the principle of the rule of law by which the British professed to govern India was little more than a charade. You also cite Caroline Elkin’s work on the many fictions of colonial benevolence. Could you talk about this connection between the fiction about colonial rule and reality? And how was this fiction produced and maintained and, in some ways, continues to be maintained?
DH: I love Caroline Elkin’s statement about the many fictions of colonial benevolence. At the forefront of these claims of colonial benevolence is the so-called rule of law and this is so powerful that the British continue to cling to it. In the current era, colonialism is completely written out of Britain’s relations with other countries like India and the British refer to it as a historical relationship. When the nature of this relationship is discussed, the rule of law is always the first thing that comes out. This is astounding for me for a context such as India, which already had ancient legal traditions. That the British were bringing the law to a place that didn’t have law then is pure nonsense. They claim that this law was barbaric and atavistic and what the British were bringing was far superior. But the rule of law was the lynchpin for a vast system of imperial and colonial exploitation.
One of the things that continues to amaze me about the rule of law is that how it operated in the colonial context has received relatively little attention. So, in the book I look at colonial judges, who were largely untrained and until the later stages of colonial rule were predominantly British as they retained hold of all higher echelons of the colonial administration. These men were largely ignorant about Indian culture and language and embodied a lot of racist ideas. The legal system was also ad hoc, highly variable and underfunded. Judges were civil servants deemed not to be good at the other aspects of the civil service and were catapulted onto the bench.
This legal system also made space for the extra-legal. Torture and extra-legal forms of violence were essentially legitimated through how the legal system operated. So, in the case of torture, this entailed all sorts of loopholes in the law that made it possible, certainly when it came to confessions. We know in India today that this is one of the foremost times when the Police use torture is to extract a confession. The Police had targets and even when targets were done away with, there were still expectations that the Police would make a certain number of arrests. It doesn’t matter who you arrest as long as you get a confession from someone. Even if torture trials ever made court, the perpetrators would largely escape unscathed because of all the myriad ways in which the extra-legal was accommodated within that rule of law.
SV: I now want to go to the part in the book where you use the East India Company’s governance of Madras. You use it as an example to note that it was in the interest of the East India Company to shift the discourse from land revenue to torture, thereby taking the focus away from structural violence and colonialism to the Indian agents of British officers. This, you say, ignores the reality that resulted from the East India Company’s land revenue policies that the Indian officials were forced to resort to torture to collect tax. To what extent would you say these tactics were successful? Would you say that structural violence has now received the kind of attention that it should?
DH: Definitely not, in the case of your latter question. I spend a lot of time in the book exploring this issue of how the structural violence of colonialism was repeatedly displaced. For me, torture is an aspect of the structural violence of colonialism because it was ubiquitous and a part of the day-to-day operation of the colonial rule in India. I specifically refer to the debate in Parliament in the early 1850s about the East India Company’s land revenue policies, which were incredibly exploitative.
We are talking about wide-scale impoverishment as a result of these sorts of transformations in India. It was in the course of this debate that torture first came up and was subjected to parliamentary debate in terms of the relationship between the agricultural system and torture. The charge made was that the agricultural system was so exploitative that revenue agents were forced to resort to torture to collect taxes, revenue taxes and land taxes. Over the course of a number of parliamentary debates, the focus shifted from land revenue to torture and the two were divorced.
The person who made this intervention was calling for an investigation into the system of land revenue in Madras, but the whole issue was turned into a debate about torture. To open up the issue of land revenue would have laid bare the exploitative nature of the colonial rule, but to shift blame away from revenue to torture made it possible to focus on Indian revenue agents and members of the Police. In provinces like Madras, they were one and the same person, which is why the system of governance was so exploitative. This was a way of displacing blame.
This is what had led to a historical inquiry on torture and one of the things I wanted to figure out was why would a colonial regime even initiate an investigation into its torture practices? It is an astounding thing to think about.
In the way the inquiry was handled, the whole commission served to shut down an inquiry into the larger aspects of torture, its use, its spread; they were pressures to look at other presidencies in which torture was just as ubiquitous and these were all shut down. Torture was also an element of revenue collection and hence became a form of structural violence, but the British turned it into a matter of some bad apples. You get rid of those bad apples, make a few, minor changes and the system can continue.
Nicholas Dirks has a fantastic book called The Scandal of Empire, which is all about scandal pertaining to violence in the late 18th Century involving a Governor-general named Warren Hastings. He argues that Hastings was eventually exonerated and served to exonerate colonialism because fixing minor issues by way of commissions sought to “take care” of the problem at a minor level. For him, Empire was legitimated by the Hastings’ case and the same thing happened with the torture investigation. It served to legitimate British rule by displacing blame and displacing focus from the true brutality of that rule.
This type of violence has largely been erased. The problem with structural violence is that it is not visible, its causes are not visible. This is also one of the forms of violence that just didn’t end when the Empire ended. The entire global economy is dependent on the exploitation of much of the Global South. This is one of the many reasons we don’t talk about or deal with structural violence.
SV: One of the things that felt devastating as I read the book was that you were almost speaking to the present. While this is history, it felt like the present was everywhere. How does your research reflect on the present? You also write that torture continues in Empire’s wake and, while analyzing the colonial State, you also note that its violence was often produced by bureaucracies which create a lawless purgatory. A form of power in which the executive, in conjunction with security forces, becomes the final arbiter of an individual’s guilt or innocence.
Today we have authoritarian regimes around the world and democracies that adopt authoritarian tactics. Do you see parallels between the present-day states that are engaging in increasingly brutal crackdowns of dissent and the past in the period that you research? Do you see a similarity of lawless forms of power in India today, for instance?
DH: I think you know the answer to that, which is: absolutely.
SV: Sometimes I think we have to keep repeating and asking the same questions over and over again.
DH: We live in really terrifying times and I think they are more terrifying than we realize in many ways. When I teach my courses, I try to ask students a question that gets them to think about the issues that they will be exploring. I teach all sorts of stuff to do with violence, brutality and nation-states. I ask them to think about a big theme and the events of the past year, and what made them think about them in relation to the history of the nation-state or histories of violence. A student once said to me that I have come to understand how someone like Hitler was possible. I thought that was insightful. It is very hard to see when you are in the midst of significant historical change, exactly what is happening and how big the change is.
What I see that resonates from my work and what goes on in the present is not just the continuation of tactics used to quell colonized populations, but actual laws being used by postcolonial regimes against its people and former imperial states like Britain using both law and colonial-era tactics against their own populations.
It is hard to keep track of the scope and scale of what’s going on in Modi’s India to suppress all forms of dissent because, of course, this suppression involves a crackdown on the media and academic freedom—horrifying on both fronts.
Somebody puts a post on Facebook about some local official that they hope won’t get re-elected and then they are rounded up and put in prison for months under terror laws. And these laws, many of them certainly to do with policing, are colonial holdovers. So, this is one of the great tragedies of the postcolonial era. So many postcolonial states did not transform those exploitative systems that they inherited from the colonial era. Torture has become perfected, more ubiquitous in postcolonial India than in the colonial era. It is enabled through the same systems and tactics as it was during the colonial era. It is horrifying; one interesting thing that needs to be thought through is how those colonial holdovers make these sorts of authoritarian figures possible.
And we see the same things here in Britain. We have a government repeatedly cracking down on academic freedom, on the right to even talk in public spaces or question the Empire’s nature. We have a government seeking to give its policing forces complete impunity regarding neo-colonial policing operations they have undertaken.
So, yes, I see the parallels. We have to produce this kind of research and we have to interrogate these colonial regimes and how they operated because colonialism doesn’t just end when the colonizers pack up and leave. It continues. But the ways in which it is continued, we can’t understand without a better grasp of those regimes’ nature, but we don’t have enough of a picture of the violent underpinnings of those regimes.
SV: Sometimes I feel that we need to keep finding the language to keep speaking about these things. I want to talk about police brutality and you write about this in the book as well. You write in detail about why and how torture was systematized and the culture of impunity that was very specifically put in place, which allowed the Police to get away with the kind of torture they did. You also observe that torturers are made, not born.
I was reading this book as we dealt with the COVID death rate and the police brutality that followed during the lockdown. How do you think this contributes to present-day debates about police brutality, not just in India but also in the United States, where we just had the trial of the murderers of George Floyd? Can you speak to us about that?
DH: Another distressing issue to think about is policing and violence. I think something that has been missed with all of the discussion about Black Lives Matter and policing is that many of the world’s policing systems, including the US and India, were designed to uphold racialized systems of governance. And these policing systems, as I have already mentioned, were not dismantled with the formal end of colonial rule or with slave emancipation or the civil rights movement. These are the ongoing legacies of colonialism. Again, a reason why we need to understand the nature and impact of the Empire to change the present.
When it comes to policing, though, the discussion at the moment is really atomized by a nation-state. There has been a lot of international attention on the Chauvin trial. A lot of jubilation that the man who killed George Floyd has actually been convicted, because it is very rare for anyone in the Police to be punished. But I’m not very hopeful just because this happens periodically. The policing system is still underpinned by a racialized system of governance. There has also been so much focus only on certain Black lives, but other Black or Brown lives aren’t entered into the equation. I was just thinking about all of the movements and protests around the world, notably in the formerly colonized world following the Black Lives Matter movement or during it. Nigeria, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Ghana, … All of them inherited colonial systems of policing and continue to enact forms of violence against marginalized peoples. All of them continue to be victimized by often horrific acts of police violence.
And the same thing is going on in other former colonial contexts and those lives don’t seem to matter much, certainly to the international community. And to me, that’s troubling, and it’s again the way we atomize history and we don’t think globally about the legacies of Empire. Until all of those lives are seen to matter and the racial underpinnings of all of those police systems are interrogated and dealt with, the trial of one man doesn’t make me very hopeful. He was also singled out by the defense as a bad apple. It’s the same defense I would see in every torture trial I looked at. Unless we look at the entire system, nothing much will change.
SV: Now that we are close to the end, I often wonder whether our podcast is a good place to discuss methodology. I wanted to discuss how you have used Agamben in your work and the idea of the “state of exception.” You discuss critiques of Agamben’s theories and write that despite its limitations, his arguments are still useful. Can you talk about why the combination of Agamben and Foucault stood out for your research?
DH: The issue of how to theorize colonial violence is what took me ten years to get this book out. This troubled me for a very long time. How to view a colony? What is a colony in terms of violence? Can we view colonies as states of exception? This is difficult to do if you are drawing on Agamben’s work because he doesn’t do it all. For him, the state of exception starts with camps and Nazis. Other scholars have gone back to the colonial period. And what are colonies but states of exception?
It is challenging to think through what a colony is or was. I found Agamben’s work useful, despite the limitations. There are many limitations in his work when thinking of colonial contexts because there is an element of exceptionality in any colonial context. The question to figure out is the extent of it, when it begins, whom it encompasses. I had to combine Agamben with Foucault, which seems obvious because Agamben’s work is based on Foucault. Still, the key aspect of Foucault’s work is governmentality and particularly the ways scholars like Didier Fassin have used it to talk about the existence of petty states of exception, that is individuals like police officers acting as sovereign in their own right. And I think that’s what colonial governmentality made possible. These minor officials could act as sovereign on behalf of the colonial State, act extra-legally and create these mini regimes of exception. I wanted to see how these operated vis-à-vis a broader exceptionality or how the colonial state functioned in an exceptional manner.
I spent a whole chapter trying to think through Agamben and Foucault and their connections and how we can understand a colony. But to me, this works. I’m not saying that there was no law in the colony. It was present but could be suspended. Certain individuals and groups were subject to an excessive law and could be reduced to what Agamben calls bare life, capable of being killed with impunity. This would apply pretty much to all the victims of police violence in colonial India, most of whom, as I have already suggested, were very vulnerable people. The two scholars in conjunction help explain what we can consider a colonial form of exceptionality. It was partly to do with the State and the legal regime, but equally important were these petty sovereigns who were essentially given the power to act with impunity.
SV: Deana, thank you so much for being with us today. The book is published by Oxford University Press, Colonial Terror: Torture and State Violence in Colonial India. It is not only an important book, it is a book that shows that history is very much present today.